Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Graphic Lit: Classic comic strips


Last week we took a look at comic strip artist Milton Caniff, creator of the classic mid-century strip “Terry and the Pirates.”

Today, let’s set the way-back machine even further to the earliest part of the 20th century and look at some collections of comic strips from that bygone era:

"The Kat Who Walked in Beauty: The Panoramic Dailies of 1920”
by George Herriman, Fantagraphics Books, 200 pages, $29.95.


Wow. That’s likely the first reaction you’ll have on gazing at this oversized, lovingly designed tribute to Herriman’s “Krazy Kat,” regarded by many as the finest comic strip ever to grace the pages of a newspaper.

The book isn’t part of Fantagraphics’ ongoing effort to collect Herriman’s Sunday strips. Rather, the bulk of “Beauty” compiles daily comics from 1920, regarded by scholars as one of the high points of the strip’s run.

A smattering of very early formative strips and sketches done for the ballet adaptation (yes, there was a “Krazy Kat” ballet) are also included.

These daily strips are interesting in that they don’t follow what we know as the classic Krazy formula (Krazy loves Ignatz mouse, mouse hates cat and throws brick at him/her, Offissa Pup loves cat and thus puts mouse in jail).

Instead we get some delightful wordplay between Krazy and Ignatz, surrounded by an inventive visual structure that few cartoonists could ever hope to emulate.

In other words, “Beauty” chronicles Herriman at the top of his game and thus is an absolutely essential purchase for serious comic strip fans.

“Oh Skin-nay: The Days of Real Sport”
by Clare Briggs and Wilbur Nesbit, Drawn and Quarterly, 136 pages, $24.95.

The type of childhood Briggs depicts so nostalgically here, where kids play marbles in the street, hop rides on ice wagons and thaw out the water pump, was already fading into yesteryear when this book was originally published in 1913.

As such, there’s a wistful gloss that can be hard for contemporary readers to swallow.

Were there no outcasts, nerds or sullen loners that got routinely bullied in Briggs’ hometown?

Nesbit’s doggerel poetry accompanying the cartoons is cute but largely unnecessary — Briggs’ artistry is strong enough to convey the moment in question without any added text.

Despite my misgivings about this book, it’s not hard to see why Briggs was so beloved in his day, and I’d like to see more of his work put back into print.

“Forever Nuts: The Early Years of Mutt and Jeff”
by Bud Fisher, NBM, 192 pages, $24.95.


Mutt and Jeff might not have been the first daily comic strip (it’s a hotly debated topic, believe it or not), but it was the first highly successful one, enough to make Fisher a rich man.

Reading this book, which collects a number of early Fisher strips, it’s not hard to see why. The strip displays a mean, and at times crude but highly effective sense of humor, with poor diminutive Jeff usually bearing the brunt of Mutt’s vicious assaults and get-rich-quick schemes.

Fisher also fills the strip with (what were then) topical references to folks like Pancho Villa and the boxer Jack Johnson, which no doubt helped add to the strip’s popularity. It’s a bold, smart-alecky comic that you don’t see a lot of in newspapers these days.

“Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: The Saturdays”
by Winsor McCay, Checker, 200 pages, $19.95.


A pioneer, McCay delighted early 20th-century audiences with his “Little Nemo in Slumberland” a fanciful, gorgeous dream world where beds strode through cities like giant horses and princesses rode around in dragons’ mouths.

“Rarebit Fiend” is an earlier work, consisting of people having bizarre, transformative nightmares induced by the consumption of a cheese sandwich.

The general rule of thumb here is the more outrageous and catastrophic the dream sequence, the better the strip.

McCay had a fascination with portraying motion (he was also a pioneer in the field of animated cartoons) and playing with the formal limits of the comic strip that, when combined with his fertile imagination, was a wondrous thing to behold.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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3 Comments:

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